Coming to Terms with U.S. History

Rob Kyff on

You can learn a lot about American history not only by studying wars, treaties and laws but also by examining its words.

Do you know, for instance, why opponents of Andrew Jackson called themselves "Whigs"? Why the Republican Party was first the "Anti-Nebraska" party? Why immigrant laborers were "indentured" servants?

-- Whigs -- Andrew Jackson wielded his presidential power so forcefully that his foes dubbed him "King Andrew." So when they formed a political party to resist his regal romp, they called themselves "Whigs," the term for the American patriots who had opposed King George III.

The patriots had taken this name from Great Britain's Whig party, which challenged the power of absolute monarchy. "Whigs" is a shortened form of "Whiggamores," a Scottish term for Presbyterians who opposed King Charles I.

Brits and colonists who favored strong royal authority were called "Tories." This term, which originally referred to Irish outlaws, was applied to supporters of the Catholic King James II and eventually to backers of any king.

--Anti-Nebraska party: When the "Nebraska bill," which proposed to allow slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska territory, was introduced in early 1854, anti-slavery Whigs and free-soil Democrats organized an "Anti-Nebraska" movement to oppose it. (Just to be clear, they didn't oppose Nebraska itself, only the bill.)

By March of 1854, this group had coalesced into the Republican Party. Shortly after the party was founded, the Nebraska bill was signed into law as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, further swelling Republican ranks.


--Indentured servants: During colonial times, when an immigrant agreed to work for a master for a fixed number of years, a contract was drawn up and often torn in half in a jagged, tooth-like pattern.

One half of this "indented" contract was given to the servant and the other half to the master. When the term of service had been completed, the "indentured" servant and master would fit the two halves of the document back together to certify their identities.

Perhaps the most significant linguistic phenomenon in U.S. history involves the name of the nation itself.

Prior to the Civil War, most Americans treated "United States" as a plural, e.g., "The United States ARE a great country." After the Civil War, they were more likely to say, "The United States IS a great country" -- revealing a subtle, but profound shift in how Americans now saw themselves.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2017 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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